The Mid-South gets sustainable with a plan to ease the damage of weather disasters

Memphis has taken another step toward addressing climate-related problems, such as flooding and wind damage, that can devastate the Mid-South environment. 

Flooding has been an issue in parts of Memphis for years. Its proximity to the Mississippi River and its local tributaries doesn’t help. Development has also exacerbated the problem. In fact, some communities are panic-stricken when heavy rains move through.

The Shelby County Office of Resilience has released the draft recommendations of its Regional Resilience Plan with solutions across agriculture and technology to help Memphis be better prepared for climate disasters. 

Announced during a series of public meetings held by the Shelby County Office of Resilience in late May, the developing set of strategies will be winnowed down from an original wishlist of 16 public policy changes and projects recommended by Sasaki, the consultant that is leading the resilience plan development.

Related: "City's efforts are a drop in the bucket to mitigate flooding risks in Whitehaven"

“The two biggest areas of immediate concern are power outages and flooding along the region’s smaller creeks and streams," said Chris Horne, project manager at Sasaki.

"Fortunately, these issues are very solvable with current knowledge, and as an added bonus, many of the solutions will enhance other aspects of quality of life, such as through improved parks, trails, and water access."

As the effects of climate change begin to manifest, communities across the globe are beginning to develop plans to brace themselves for the future. The Mid-South is no different in this regard. A few months back, the Shelby County Office of Resilience started developing a master plan of their own.
The Regional Resilience Plan will cover all of Shelby and DeSoto Counties, along with parts of Marshall and Fayette Counties. In addition to preparing for the future, the blueprint is to help the area recover from a series of storms that swept through the region in April of 2011.

In January, residents were invited to participate in public workshops in phase one of the Mid-South Regional Resilience Plan development. Those workshops offered an opportunity to share opinions on strategies to mitigate effects of and manage recovery from future weather-related incidents. For each of the three phases, public events are scheduled to gather feedback that helps inform the next phase.

“At the last meetings, we had the maps where we asked people to indicate where there was flooding," said Horne.

"What was interesting about that was there were certain places that were indicated as having floods that the official data wasn’t capturing. So, we thought that was interesting and that we should crowdsource this to make sure our data set is as comprehensible as possible."

Residents that experience chronic flooding can now use a new online tool to identify flood-prone areas. The information will be part of a regional flood dataset that supplements existing data. It will be also be used to prioritize needs during the final phase of the MSRPP development process. The flood identification tool can be accessed here.

Related: "Mapping a way forward to prepare the Mid-South for global warming-related weather disasters"

With a more complete picture coming into view, a range of proposals are now being looked at to provide relief. During the presentation, Horne broke down the strategies into three categories: regional, neighborhood (residential and commercial) and site/building specific.

On a regional scale, water farming has been proposed to address the issue of flooding on the large scale. Generally, tracts of agricultural land, like in Marshall County, Miss., are dammed to capture excess runoff. Like a retention area, the water is released slowly later once the flooding has subsided downstream.

“They basically function like sponges around the region. It’s a way to supplement some of the traditional engineering solutions,” said Horne.

Water farms also help reduce pollution and, depending on design, can actually help clean water. They can also be used as recreational amenities, like a park, for instance.

“When these are done well, they can be attractive and create habitat," Horne added.

On a neighborhood scale, Sasaki talked about redefining residential and commercial areas in a way that would ease flooding and build in amenities for residents. Parks that are designed to flood a few times a year will double as green spaces during drier weather.

“It’s a mini version of water farming, really. You get a little sponge that mitigates the flooding,” said Horne.

Similar projects have already been implemented in areas of town, like water retention basins. These structures hold water during rainy periods and gradually release it to allow creeks and streams to drain. Snowden Field at Snowden Middle School is an example.

Berms to protect vulnerable buildings are a low-cost option for residential and commercial neighborhoods, along with roadside swales designed to collect runoff from roads, sidewalks and residential lots to prevent flooding by allowing the water to seep underground.

Streambank restoration is another idea pitched to mitigate flooding with a reasonable price tag, according to the consultants. Many estuaries have seen erosion on their banks over time. These banks could be rehabbed with terracing the land and planting of native species to keep water moving along. Additionally, amenities have been proposed alongside the rehabbed areas, like recreational trails, parks and docks.

Memphis has also seen its share of wind damage from the lasting damage of Hurricane Elvis to the storm of 2016 that leveled trees throughout the city. In their wakes came massive cleanup efforts and, for some, suffering through weeks of power outages.

“Since damaging wind and power outages were identified in the January meetings as such a huge issue, that’s something we wanted to spend a significant amount of time looking at,” said Horne.

In some instances, power lines can be buried. Felled trees are the culprits in many outages. This would generally occur in areas that routinely see high winds and are prone to downed utility poles. According to MLGW estimates, a city-wide conversion to below-ground power lines would take 50 years and cost $3.6 billion.

While costs force the city to be selective about making improvements to the local power grid, some options are relatively cost-effective.

“Out of all the options we have been researching, the smart grid concept seems to be one of the most promising in terms of its impact relative to its cost,” said Horne.

Memphis began implementing smart grid strategies and technologies during phase one of MLGW’s Smart Grid initiative. Residential meters, for example, are digital. They feed real-time information back to the utility company, so they can manage day-to-day peaks and ebbs on the local grid more efficiently. It’s the first step in building a modern digital grid for the city.

For building and site-specific strategies, expansion of solar power made the list. Rooftops of larger buildings are natural landscapes for panels. Solar charging stations would benefit many during general outages. It would also make microgrid installation far easier. Powered by alternative energy sources at key locations, microgrids would provide power locally to key buildings in the event of a grid failure.

Some environmental activists hope that the regional plan considers solar power as a means to restore power in the occasion of fallen power lines. 

“... There should probably be a big, utility-scale solar implementation so that all of our power generation doesn’t come from one place. My wife is from Puerto Rico and her parents only got power restored a few weeks ago," said Dennis Lynch, transportation chair at Sierra Club, Tennessee Chapter and a participant at the public meeting. "We need to be certainly thinking microgrids and not just some solar charging stations."

Phase three of MSRRP will be accompanied by tough choices. Vital improvements will face the chopping block as the master plan is put to paper. 

At a recent public meeting, home energy efficiency, stream bank restoration, roadside swales and burying power lines came out as top priorities. Moving into its final phase, the end goal is to develop out the strategies that seem most promising and resonate with residents and local officials.

Consultants will do a deep dive on those ideas: how would this strategy work, how would we implement it, how would it be funded and where would it go (under whose jurisdiction). A third set of public meetings are planned for mid-October for further feedback with a draft documentation of the resilience plan available online for comment.

“If we have this plan and the community pushes for say more solar then the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] will have to recognize it. It’s a long-term solution but we have to start now with the thinking, planning and solutions,” said Lynch.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.